Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Street Linguistics

The names of city streets and avenues tell interesting stories about the cultures and the personalities of different groups of people who have lived there over time. For one thing, they tell us who our heroes were (something that can change dramatically over time). So in Austin there is a neighborhood with a Robert E Lee Street and a Jeff Davis Avenue, but downtown some of the most prominent streets boast names like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Cesar Chavez Street and, perhaps most appropriately, Willie Nelson Boulevard.

(In the reverse process of hero creation, when I went to school in Portland I was delighted to find that many of the street names like Quimby, Flanders, and Van Houten where the source for names of characters on The Simpsons)

Street names can also tell us about our culture and our past. 

This is Meador Avenue in the St. Johns neighborhood. When I worked for the Census Bureau, I had to interview people on this street and ask them questions about their address. I assumed that the name was Spanish. Nearby streets have names like Bennet and Providence, but not too far away there is a Camino La Costa and a La Posada Drive, and most of the people that I spoke with pronounced it as if it were Spanish (pronounced, I think, something like /meaor/ or 'may-adore'). Later, someone in the neighborhood informed me that the "technically correct" pronunciation was /mɛɾɚ/ 'medder.' This is because the word is actually English: it comes from the old Central Texas pronunciation of the word 'meadow.' 

I'm not sure if that is true or not, but it seems possible. This is partly why I wholeheartedly condone the often-criticized cowboy pronunciations of Spanish street names that I was taught as a child: Guadalupe is 'gwadaloop,' Manchaca is 'manchak,' Pedernales is 'perdenalis.' The names and their pronunciation belong to the residents of the streets, and their usage defines the acceptable pronunciations. Pronunciation can tell us about the people who live there or who used to live there. 

For example, I grew up near here:

Depending upon where you stand or who you ask, this street is also called Allandale, 290, Northland, or 2222, presumably to keep people who don't live in the area from being able to get around. The name is a reflection of the presence of historical German communities in Central Texas. 'Koenig' is the German word for 'king.'

The street name is pronounced /kenɪg/ 'kaynig,' which is not obvious to non-residents. It is also not how the word 'king' is pronounced in Standard German, which is approximately like /kønɪk/ 'kernik.' The reason for this is that the Germans who settled in Central Texas (including my ancestors) mostly spoke dialects of German with unrounded front vowels that would be rounded in Standard German. The way we pronounce this street name is, in other words, actually a crystallized feature of a unique Texas-German dialect.

You can hear the same thing when Austinites pronounce the name of the old Mueller Airport - they don't say 'myooler' but rather 'meeler.' The Gruene river, another German word, is pronounced 'green' instead of an approximation of Standard German like 'groone':

Spelling:                                    Standard German:                                         Texas Pronunciation:

'ü' or 'ue'                                    /y/ ('oo' with tongue brought forward)             /i/ ('ee')

'ö' or 'oe'                                   /ø/ ('oh' with tongue brought forward)             /e/ ('ay')

Very few of the residents of these places speak Texas-German anymore, but the unique pronunciation of place names has survived. The story is similar with Meador Avenue, except that the Texas English pronunciation of the name is in conflict with the Spanish pronunciation because of a perceived Spanish origin. Either way, the pronunciation acts as a shibboleth and can lead to your identification as inside or outside of a group. I will pronounce the name Guadalupe Street differently depending upon whether I am talking to my grandparents or to a Spanish speaker or to a friend my own age who has moved here.

This is where my interests in linguistics began. I learned German in school so that I could speak with my grandfather, and yet I still couldn't understand him very well. I didn't get the joke when he called my cousin 'Danke Shane' because I didn't understand that this is how 'danke schön' is pronounced in Texas-German (of course that's also how Wayne Newton sings it).

Then I learned that he was speaking an American dialect of German, and I learned that there were people who like to study that sort of thing (specifically, these awesome people). And that is, more or less, how I ended up in Nepal.


Today I took the bus to Hyde Park from the University of Texas campus, and the automated voice recording that called out the names of bus stops pronounced the final Spanish vowel in "Guadalupe," but pronounced "Koenig" with an 'oh' sound. I wonder if this an oversight or whether this is actually a common modern pronunciation of the word. 

Also, I found this other dude on the Internet writing in the comments section of a phonetics blog about German settlers and in-group identification and using the same three examples. So, um yeah. Another dude on the Internet agrees with me; yes indeed.

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